Minette Church has unearthed shards of ceramics, broken toys and other artifacts from people who lived long ago, trying to connect the past to the present.
As an anthropological archeologist, artifacts help her study not only how people lived but how cultures have changed over time and what we can learn from it. Unlike history, which relies heavily on written documents, archeology allows insight into people’s everyday lives by examining the items they used and then left behind.
Church, a UCCS associate professor of anthropology, considers a 2-cent coin to be her coolest find. It came from the Lopez Family Plaza, an 1880s homestead in southern Colorado, where she has done extensive archeology work.
A dent in the coin’s center was determined to be from a .22 bullet, but Church could only imagine what happened. She thought of one of the Lopez sons who was a sharpshooter for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
“This is one of those moments where I can talk about this absolutely from the archeological science standpoint as an unprovable hypothesis, un-testable,” she said. “I can’t say this happened for sure. But immediately I had this story in my head of him coming back to visit his family and showing off by putting this coin on a fence post and then shooting it.”
Imagining stories of the past is part of why she likes archeology, though she wasn’t immediately drawn to the field.
As an undergraduate student, Church switched majors several times—English, geology, history and anthropology—before deciding on archeology, focusing on the 19th century.
“I can work in the archives. I can work with artifacts, things I can hold in my hand. And I can even look at literature as the cultural context in which these people were living,” she said. “It satisfies my science nerd and my humanities nerd.”
Church, 52, grew up surrounded by the past. She lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a small town founded in the 1740s. Her mother volunteered for reenactments of the town’s historical heritage and Church tagged along as a girl.
“In the ‘60s and ‘70s, you went to these historic sites with well-manicured lawns and people dipping candles and making baskets,” she said. “By the time I was in grad school, I was learning how those living history museums were all very nice and pretty but not necessarily the reality of what people lived like every day.”
“Archeology is a more democratic data source about people’s lives”
She appreciated that areas such as Jamestown, Plymouth and Williamsburg began revealing what she calls the gritty side of history, details that had been getting omitted such as how many of the people in Williamsburg had been enslaved.
“A big part of what drew me to what I do is trying to tell the untold stories. People write about what they want to write about. But you can’t control what you can learn from the stuff they leave behind,” she said. “Archeology is a more democratic data source about people’s lives, and it compliments what’s in the documents.”
Anna Cordova, lead archeologist for the city of Colorado Springs, met Church about 16 years ago as a freshman. When Cordova was a graduate student from 2014 to 2016, Church was on her research committee.
“What struck me as a 19-year-old freshman was how engaging and how passionate she was about archeology. She always made it fun. You could tell that she loved it,” Cordova said. “If I’ve ever had a mentor in my life, it’s Minette. She’s taught me the vast majority of what I know about archeology. She’s someone I still go to today if I have questions with my job.”
Church joined UCCS in 1997. She received a bachelor of arts in history and anthropology in 1987 from CU Boulder. She earned two graduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania: a master’s degree in museum curatorship in 1991 and a doctorate degree in American civilization/historical archaeology in 2001.
Her geographic interests focus on Belize, Central America, where she’s done archeology work on a 19th century Maya Village, and on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, including the Lopez Family Plaza. In both regions, she studies the archaeology of parenting and childhood, landscape archaeology, border regions, and colonial/post-colonial transnational identities.
Church, who is also the faculty director of the Heller Center for Arts and Humanities, has written roughly three dozen publications on archeology, including a book, book chapters and technical reports.
She is working on two books, one of which is an archeology biography of the Lopez family. She’s pulling from memoirs written by two of the 11 children and pairing it with archeological data gathered from the homestead, located about 45 minutes south of La Junta. The children’s memoirs include accounts of an oldest son herding cattle at age 6, while a younger daughter described a Victorian-era upbringing that included attending school.
Church feels a connection to the ranching family after conducting archeology work there off and on for 15 years.
“When you are working on a site like that for multiple seasons, you start to feel what’s probably a little bit of a false sense of intimacy with the people that lived there because you’re digging up their stuff that they didn’t even intend to leave there,” she said. “There’s something sort of neat getting to know people on this level who are no longer with us.”
— Photos by Anslee Wolfe
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